A BANJO PLAYERS LOOK AT IBMA
By Ross Nickerson
I made the trip to IBMA this year and had a great time. I came home inspired and even more excited about playing than when I got there. That in itself is worth the trip. Seeing other banjo players and other musicians is always worthwhile, as we know. I’m sure bands at festivals or hot parking lot sessions inspired many of us. IBMA was a whole week of both, great performances and great jamming.
I’ll start off by saying I wasn’t there all week so I’m sure I missed some things but in the time I was there I was exposed to lots of great stuff, and I’d like to share some of that with you from a banjo players perspective.
One of the highlights for me was hearing Jens Kruger of the Kruger Bros. play. Man that guy has got some chops! He was performing in what at IBMA they call a hospitality suite showcase. For those of you who haven’t been to IBMA, throughout the week artists are performing in basically large hotel rooms. The showcases are sponsored by different organizations, for instance The Kruger Bros. were showcasing in the Arizona Bluegrass Association’s showcase. Two of the more popular ones were the California Bluegrass Association’s, and one sponsored by the Colorado Case Company. What make these showcases unique (if you can find a spot in the room) is how close you are and the pleasure of capturing the artist’s acoustic sound.
Now, back to Jens Krueger, on a hot tip from Mike Munford I showed up for the showcase a 12:30 AM, (things don’t really get cooking up there until at least after midnight). We sat right next to him on the floor. Himself, his brother and their bass player were sitting in chairs. They began playing some laid back stuff and it was immediately apparent that he was a brilliant musician. His mastery of the fingerboard was outrageous and really fun to watch. In typical banjo player fashion he had this relaxed nonchalant look on his face and at the same time was blazing new trails on the fret board. That brings up a point that is difficult for banjo players sometimes. In order to play the banjo clean, smooth and with good technique, it is best to be very relaxed. Banjoists many times have a way of making it look effortless which can work against you in performance situations, for instance in earning applause. Most audience people focus on the musicians left hand and on the banjo much of the intricacy is in the right hand. Which is hard to see. Also it’s more difficult to move your body as it might jar your right hand out of position. When I’m performing, if I want to move around a lot I just make up for it when I’m vamping or playing slower or swing tempos. If I remember, I may try to make something look harder to play than it is sometimes. The audience definitely likes when they think your working hard for them. I was playing the other night and we were playing a song that you could tell I had to put extra effort into and I received applause on my solo. I didn’t think it was that great but it illustrates the point. I guess, simply put people like to see you sweat. Of course guitar flat pickers deserve a lot of audience appreciation as they work awful hard soloing to keep up with the banjo.
Jens Kruger was the ultimate at making it look easy, which unfortunately may have made it somewhat less impressive. Trust me what he was doing was not easy. I’m sure his practice time has been relentless. He played like he was just got up and was brushing his teeth. Meanwhile he was on another level. The stuff he fell back on (his go to licks or rolls so to say) was some of the most advanced stuff you can find available to learn. He definitely has mastered the styles available to banjoists, such Bela Fleck’s Homespun six tape series, Banjo Picking Styles, Tony Trichka’s , Hot Licks for Bluegrass Banjo, and anything else he could find. And now he’s creating his own music that although was definitely Bela influenced, it was very much his own. That’s the way to do it. Him and his brother were fun too, but most of all everything no matter how technically impressive it was, it fit together musically and was very pleasing to the ear. Jens gives off a very personable, likeable stage presence and he looks like someone you would want to invite over to your house. They have at least four cd’s out. To here sound samples go to their record company’s website at www.doubletimemusic.com. Here is their band website address also www.krugerbrothers.com.
Although as I said earlier I wasn’t there all week, here are some other highlights from a banjo players perspective. I went to the banjo workshop, which featured. Ronnie McCoury, Bob Black, Allison Brown, Sammy Shelor and Bill Evans. Bill did a nice job of directing the demonstration and everyone played well. For those of you who may not have heard of Bob Black, he played for Bill Monroe in the 70’s I believe and was known much for mixing in melodic playing especially on fiddle tunes. If I’m not mistaken he was the banjo player on Kenny Baker’s Jerusalem Ridge. He told the story of how he got the Monroe job. He said Monroe had him come into his office and play for him. The whole time he was playing Monroe had the radio turned up loud. Bob thought he might have wanted to see if he got rattled easy. Another great Monroe story. Allison Brown was interesting. She was genuinely, as she said “astonished ” to be asked to play at IBMA because she’s not really playing bluegrass. She put it great though. She said ” when we play bluegrass venues we’re called jazz and when we play jazz venues were called folk”. I guess it’s hard to win with a banjo sometimes. I saw Allison Brown’s set and it was great. It was well attended and their sound and sound equipment was very sophisticated. It’s impressive all that she has accomplished. Pat Cloud was there creating a buzz just playing in his room. Bill Evans introduced me to Sonny Osborne. What a character. He looks in great shape. I don’t know how old he is but I would want him to be on my side if a fight broke out.
It was nice to see some really creative banjo playing going on this year as well as the hard driving greats such as this years banjo player of the year winner Jimmy Mills of Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder.
IBMA is a great experience if you haven’t attended. If you’re a player it’s a week of performing, jamming and learning and if you’re a fan most of the top bands are there. How can you beat that? Maybe I’ll see you there next year.
Ross Nickerson’s main teaching website
The Banjo Song book by Ross Nickerson